Design and Methods

The research project was meant to offer an insight into the current ‘state of affairs’ in relation to professional reflection processes of primary school teachers on rituals/ ritualisations in schools. I aimed at establishing an inventory of current practice and at detecting potential problem areas. Specific attention was given to critical reflection. The focus on critical reflection was based on an assumption that there may be a quality inherent to rituals that would make them difficult to access in such reflection processes. The close connection of rituals to the complex of power relations was seen as potentially playing a role here.

Having first hand experience of different educational systems and, within German framework, also of varying pedagogical approaches, I was aware that different environments can provide for different practices. Therefore it seemed reasonable to think about a comparative element between different school types and educational styles from the very beginning.

Schools are built on concepts of childhood, adulthood that are paradigmatic for their practice. Schools are materializing (and at the same time generating) pedagogic and professional discourses. Their practice is always linked to particular aspects of these discourses at a given time/space constellation. Pedagogic discourse is not monolithic, but rather diverse tendencies exist within it. This accounts for a broad spectrum of concepts on which schools are built.

My research emerged in an Irish context. Therefore it was an obvious choice to consider Irish schools as a first point of reference. Being involved in primary education myself I decided to concentrate on the primary sector. In Ireland all primary schools operate on the basis of the rules of national schools and all schools follow the national curriculum. The school day in all schools is structured according to the allocation of times for the different strands (subjects) as derived from the national curriculum. Attendance in the lessons is compulsory for the children. Children have normally no say in deciding who is going to teach them.

As a counterpoint to the Irish primary schools it seemed particularly interesting to look at schools that are based on principles of self-regulation. In schools where children “decide individually how, when, what, where and with whom they learn” (IDEN 2005) the pattern of traditional power relations that are characteristic for mainstream schools are supposed to be shifted. It would be only logical to assume that this will have an effect on the way in which rituals/ritualisations are part of the practice in these schools and consequently also on the reflection processes of the adults concerning rituals/ritualisations.

Best known examples of such schools are probably Summerhill School in England and Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. According to the International Democratic Education Network (IDEN) there are over 200 schools that offer an education based on principles of equal participation of children and adults and on the principle of self-regulation. While no such schools exist in Ireland in a European context the country with the biggest number of such schools is Germany. At present there are 87 schools organised in a national federation (BFAS). When designing my research project I decided to use these schools as one field of gathering information. It offered the requested counterpoint to the Irish primary schools. A detailed description of the specific characteristics of these schools is included in the book.

However looking at Irish mainstream schools and German free alternative schools as two fields for a comparative study seemed not yet fully satisfactory. While there are certainly differences in the practice in these two school types that could be clearly traced back to differing pedagogical concepts it was also feasible to assume that there might be differences that are better explained by reference to the cultural differences between Germany and Ireland. Therefore it made sense to also include German mainstream schools in the research. They could be assumed to share with the free alternative schools the cultural background while at the same time sharing with the Irish schools essential elements of organising their pedagogy: compulsory attendance, set time-tabling, teacher’s control over with whom, when, where, when, what the children do.

Aiming at an inventory of current practice in professional reflection processes and having identified the field for the research to be carried out I still needed an anchoring point for the concrete research design. Thus the overall aim of the study was worked into a catalogue of research questions which functioned as a constant point of reference throughout the research process. These questions were:

1. Which are the currently used/preferred reflection settings for teachers in primary schools?

2. Are rituals reflected upon by teachers?

If yes: 3. which rituals are reflected upon?

4. … in which settings?

5. Can the process of reflection be described?

6. Can typical patterns be identified in the professional reflection processes of teachers in primary schools concerning rituals/ritualisations?

7. If typical patterns can be identified, how do such patterns relate to the settings in which the reflection takes place?

8. If such patterns are identifiable, are they similar for distinct backgrounds, or are there significant differences?

9. If there are significant differences, how can they be explained? But also: if there are no significant differences, how is this to be explained given the diverse background and potentially different settings of reflection?

10. Does critical reflection on rituals take place?

11. Are there obstacles in relation to critical reflection on rituals/ritualisations taking place in professional reflection processes of primary school teachers?

12. If there are obstacles in relation to critical reflection on rituals/ritualisations:

a) how are these obstacles related to the intrinsic characteristics of rituals/ritualisations?

b) how are these obstacles related to the settings in which the reflection processes take place?

c) are they similar in different backgrounds/or not?

d) and how can this be explained?

The design of my research project was anchored in these questions.

Methods employed

The methods chosen for gathering data for my study comprised of

  • a questionnaire;

  • a series of semi-structured interviews;

  • memory-work workshops.

Using questionnaires and semi-structured interviews can be seen as quite standard applications within social research. Memory-work denotes a method of collective inquiry developed by feminist researchers in the 1980′s. In memory-work researcher and researched collaborate in investigating a given topic according to a set of procedures surrounding the analysis of self-generated texts. There is a separate page devoted to the method of memory-work which you can find here.

In choosing the three different methods I tried to maximise the potential outcome of my research in light of structural limitations. The study had to be planned and conducted entirely at my own expense. There was no institutional apparatus available to tap into, for example in form of students who might help gathering data in field studies. There was a time-limit simply due to the fact that while conducting the study I had to put on a hold my normal occupation. Support in form of institutional supervision was available only for a limited period. The choice of methods took these limitations into account. Each of the methods was chosen for its fit for gathering data addressing particular aspects of the study.

Questionnaire

Obviously it makes a difference whether a reflection process takes place during a fifteen minute yard break with a crowd of children around, or in a two-hour meeting after school in a quiet meeting room. Also the number and the institutional role of participants will have a bearing on reflection processes. A meeting of two or three teachers who all teach the same age group of children in a school will offer different opportunities than a meeting of 25 members of staff who are working in different roles (special needs assistants, resource teachers, class teachers, principal).

In the literature on reflection I could not find an overview on the actual reflection settings used by primary school teachers. Thus one element that I deemed helpful was to find out what settings teachers in the three fields actually use for their professional reflection processes and the time frames for the teachers’ reflection processes in various settings. This was meant to provide a description of the actual framework in which rituals/ritualisations could be reflected upon by the teachers.

To address this issue I decided to employ a questionnaire that would inquire into the actual practice of the teachers.

Interview series

Literature on rituals in school that was based on empirical data has strongly relied on case studies of particular schools (McLaren 1986, Henry 1993, Bushnell 1999) or classes in schools (Wagner-Willi 2005, Kellermann 2008, Xiao 2008). The main method used for data collection in these studies is ethnographic field study. For these projects this made good sense because their main focus was to gather information about the actual rituals, hence the observation of the activities deemed to be ritual put the researcher into a position to report from a first hand experience.

For my own project such an approach was not feasible. It might have been possible to find a cooperating school in each of the three school types that would accept participation in team meetings and other formal reflection settings over a longer period of time. However the entire area of informal reflection settings would have been difficult to access. Also the organisational aspects of such an undertaking would have been enormous. The practical problems of commuting between Ireland and Germany on a regular basis of at least fortnightly frequency made such an endeavour completely unrealistic. Furthermore the research questions aimed at deciphering typical patterns in reflection processes. To do so it was more appropriate to spread the gathering of data over a wider area of sources which also ensured greater comparability.

Thus I decided to conduct a series of semi-structured interviews in each of the three school types. The semi-structured nature of the interview guaranteed scope for the interview partners to address the issues at hand from their own position and background. And yet in this manner it was possible to collect a body of material that was open to comparative analysis as one element of my study. In terms of organisation the interviews were also manageable even on the basis of the limitations as stated above.

Memory-work

One of the aims of my study was to ascertain if there are potential problem areas for critical reflection inherent to rituals/ritualisations and to develop suggestions for their increased inclusion in processes of critical reflection. Addressing this aim I found it useful to include an element of practice-research in my study that could provide an insight in the practical implications of critical reflection on rituals/ritualisations. For this purpose I decided to engage with the method of memory-work which was developed by feminist researchers during the 1980′s. (Haug 1990, 1992, 1999)

Memory-work is a form of narrative inquiry which uses scenes (short stories) written by the participants in workshops as the material for reflection and research. The application of memory-work in an Irish context was a novelty which added an aspect to this part of my study that promised to contribute to discussions of method in social research on a plane beyond the specifics of my own project.